Of Jesus’ childhood, the scriptures provide a report for only three days, when he was separated from his parents, and eventually found sitting with the rabbis in the temple. So we know that he was a religious child. But although holy writ does not record it anywhere, I think we can be assured that from time to time, the boy Jesus played games. One such game he might have played with his friends after Hebrew School, and could have been called, “A New Commandment.” It was, in fact, a learning exercise, to help memorize the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, of Jewish law. The trick of the game was to call out something that might or might not be a commandment and see if you could fool your friends.
You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge? Old commandment!
You shall not eat a worm found in an apple? Old commandment.
A younger brother must make the bed of his older brother in the morning? A new commandment!
You get the idea.
Even as a boy, Jesus had a way of throwing a curveball into the game.
You shall pay your hired servant on the day of his labor? Old commandment!
You shall forgive your sister or your wife or your mother even if she troubles you? A new commandment!
You shall not eat the flesh of an ox that has been condemned to be stoned? Old commandment!
You should love your enemies and pray for them? A new commandment!
We Christians are somewhat stupefied by the idea of governing our lives by a body of 613 commandments. Most of us had to learn to remember only the Ten Commandments when we were young, and, in truth, we generally find even those a struggle. It is no longer clear to us why you should not boil meat in milk or wear garments that are made from a blend of linen and wool. Our few Jewish friends who keep kosher (if we have any at all) are something of a quaint mystery to us.
Episcopal tradition, as we have received it, is blissfully free of commandments. Try to name one thing that is required of you day-in –and-day-out in order to be an Episcopalian – I dare you. This is not a complaint, it is just a comment – we are not much into commandments, and perhaps with good reason: commandments don’t sell very well, these days. Americans these days do not want to be told “thou shalt” any more than they want to be told “thou shalt not.”
Jesus himself was not very big into commandments as his ministry matured. He had a penchant for re-imagining or circumventing the traditional Jewish mitzvot (depending on your point of view). He left behind no written set of rules. And the one commandment he did give his followers was this: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Of course, it has been the long tradition of the church to ignore this commandment (or to re-imagine or circumvent it, depending on your point of view).
In fairness, as commandments go, this one is a bit vague. What does it mean to love one another? Strangely, it is immensely easy to disagree about this. Are we to understand “just as I have loved you” to mean that we should imitate Jesus in the way we live our lives? If so, what does this mean? Did he wear linen mixed with wool? Did he boil meat in milk? Did he forgive his brothers and sisters, or did he ignore them? Where did he stand on gun control, or abortion, or gay rights, or the treatment of enemy combatants held in distant places? How can we apply the injunction to love to these difficult matters? Are we meant to?
When you think about it, it might be easier to be governed by 613 mitzvot than to have to somehow figure out what this one commandment means. After all, it’s not so hard to understand this commandment: “You shall not shear the firstling of your flock.” It’s easy to wear fringes on your clothes and know you are in compliance with God’s law. But how do we show everyone that we are Jesus’ disciples by loving one another? Doesn’t love have a way of making up its own rules? And aren’t there far more than 613 ways for people to show that we love one another, some of them complicated, and some even a little weird?
I sometimes imagine that on the evening of the Last Supper, Jesus’ disciples were indulging in childish reminiscence and playing “A New Commandment” with each other, letting off steam as they prepared for the Passover after an exciting and confusing few days in Jerusalem.
Jesus remained quiet, an inscrutable Mona Lisa smile on his face as his friends made silly suggestions of new and outrageous mitzvot: you shall not feed a multitude of five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes, they laughed among themselves. You shall not set the Lord’s messiah on a donkey to bring him into Jerusalem, and strow branches in his path as you sing, Hosanna in the highest!” they smirked with one another.
Interrupting his own silence and their game, Jesus gets up from the table and begins quietly to wash the feet of his disciples, much to their amazement and confusion. And after supper, picking up on their game, he tells them this: “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another, even as I have loved you.” But this is not funny. This is not a game. The first part of the commandment is not new at all – that you should love one another – it’s straight from the law, already a mitzvah. So it’s the second part of the commandment that is new – as I have loved you. Love one another as I have loved you.
Did they wonder as much as we do about how to let this commandment guide their lives? Or was it clearer to them because of what he’d done with them, how he’d been with them, what he’d already taught to them?
Did they see that living out this new commandment would mean being guided by a few questions?
Can you wash someone’s feet with it? A new commandment.
Can you feed a hungry belly with it? A new commandment.
Can you heal someone with it? A new commandment.
Can you forgive someone with it? A new commandment.
Can you restore, renew or redeem someone with it? A new commandment.
Contrast these questions to some others:
What does it prohibit? Old commandment.
How can you be sure it’s pure? Old commandment.
What ancient enmities does it preserve? Old commandment.
Whose privilege of power does it protect? Old commandment.
Jesus did not say what to do about the old commandments, except that he said that it was not his ministry or intention to disrupt one jot or one tittle of the old law, but to fulfill it.
Isn’t it odd how appealing the old commandments can be? Isn’t it funny how often we allow our lives and our religion to be governed by those old questions:
What is prohibited in this church?
Who is pure and worthy in this church?
What ancient enmities must we preserve in this church?
Whose privilege and power must be protected in this church?
I don’t know, maybe those questions have some value. But they lack the power to identify us as followers of Jesus. For that, you need the new commandment of love. For that, you need to ask, “Who’s washing who’s feet?” It is surprising how easily the old questions melt away when you are washing someone else’s feet.
We live in a complicated and sophisticated age, in which we are faced with many perplexing matters. I suppose it would be too simple to suggest that all we have to do as Christians is to learn to love one another – because to say that is somehow not saying enough, and the semantics of love are themselves complicated and sophisticated. But if we need a test by which we might know how closely we are hewing to Christ’s new and only commandment, perhaps it is this: Who’s washing who’s feet here?
It is hard to nurture old hatreds when you kneel to wash someone’s feet.
It is hard to count the number of bullets in a magazine (too many? too few?) when you are washing someone’s feet.
It is hard to be critical of someone’s sexual orientation when you are washing her feet.
It is hard to feel self-righteous when you are washing someone else’s feet. (Well actually, it’s not, but that just goes to show you how easily we can pervert nearly anything, including this test of love!)
Jesus did not give a new commandment because he thought the 613 mitzvot were too many to worry about. He gave a new commandment because the ancient law was one commandment short.
So he girded himself with a towel, and he got down on his knees, and he began to write the new commandment of love with water and sweat, and the stink of dirty feet. And he must have known that it would be difficult for us to follow this new commandment. So by his service to those who should have been serving him, he posed the question by which we might test our faithfulness to the new commandment: Who’s washing who’s feet? A question so simple, even a child can answer it.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
28 April 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia